Will there be another #OccupyNigeria protest?

The inauguration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu signaled the long-awaited removal of petrol subsidies, leading to the deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector—a feat that had proven perpetually daunting for his predecessors. The president, in his inaugural speech, emphatically declared, “subsidy is gone.”

A similar situation in 2012 resulted in a nationwide protest and industrial action by labour unions, which came to be known as the Occupy Nigeria protest. The aftermath of rising petrol prices, tripled transportation fares, and increased costs of basic goods seems to mirror that of the 2012 subsidy removal, which sparked the Occupy Nigeria protest that erupted almost immediately after the announcement.

However, it has been almost eight weeks since the president’s announcement and the implementation of deregulation, aiming to allow petrol prices to reflect market dynamics determined by supply and demand. Despite this, it is not yet apparent how Nigerians would react to the scorching consequences of this painful yet crucial public policy. 

The burning question on many Nigerians’ minds is whether mass protests, like those in 2012, are impending. While it is likely that Nigerians may find ways to register their dismay, as they have already started through social media platforms, it is unclear whether a replica of the Occupy Nigeria campaign is imminent. Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely.

The Occupy Nigeria protests in 2012 were largely a product of collaboration between labour unions and politicians, each pursuing diverse interests. While the labour unions claimed to have championed the movement in the interest of ordinary citizens, opposition parties and leaders leveraged the opportunity to expose the incompetence of the Jonathan government for their political gain. The basis for their stance was largely populist, and they did not have any history of supporting the termination of the subsidy regime.

The case is different in the present context. The 2023 electioneering period witnessed rigorous campaigns by political parties, marked by a point of alignment and convergence. This point, which united all major political parties and their flagbearers, was the necessity to abolish the subsidy regime, which had massively eroded Nigeria’s fiscal health. All parties made the removal of petrol subsidies a priority.

From the APC flagbearer, now President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to Atiku Abubakar of the leading opposition PDP, and Peter Obi of the third force Labour Party, all preached the necessity of subsidy removal with a sense of urgency. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), as the umbrella movement of Nigeria’s organised labour, even endorsed Peter Obi of the Labor Party (LP) as their most preferred presidential candidate, implying support for his manifesto, including subsidy removal.

This has put the NLC and opposition parties and leaders in a difficult position—a position that lacks moral justification to champion any mass action against a policy they unanimously supported. Consequently, the incentive for another Occupy Nigeria protest is lost.

However, the loss of moral grounds for NLC and opposition parties to lead a protest does not mean Nigerians cannot or will not protest. In fact, the situation presents an opportunity for genuinely aggrieved Nigerians affected by the policy change to register their dismay without the usual political dilution. This potential risk should be considered by the government as it continues to implement other difficult policies, such as floating the Nigerian currency, introducing tuition fees in tertiary institutions, and proposing tax reforms, among others.

To navigate this complex landscape, the government should prioritise communication and imbibe what Dr. Mahmud Tukur defines as the “ease and kindness” political leadership value in his magnum opus ‘Leadership and Governance in Nigeria: The Relevance of Values.’ This value guides leaders to “lighten the burden of the state” on the common people and “limit the inconvenience which the exercise of power and authority is bound to cause them.” Similarly, if and when Nigerians decide to register their dismay following hardships caused by these policies, they should do so in pursuit of good governance and the provision of adequate buffers and measures to mitigate the overbearing shocks.

Ultimately, both the government and the people must unite in the pursuit of public interest. While petrol subsidies were a liability for both the government and the people of Nigeria, the government should strive to secure the people’s trust and prove that they are in this together for their own benefit. This can be achieved through moderating the cost of governance, improving accountability, and providing adequate and effective mechanisms to reduce the impact of such tough policies. Only then can the Hope of Nigerians be truly Renewed.

Abdulhaleem Ishaq Ringim, political/public affairs analyst and Fellow, African Liberty Writing Fellowship, writes from Zaria, Kaduna state via [email protected]

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